Island Life by David Slack

A silence closely resembling stupidity

If you got your car through that stretch of highway near Maramarua over the last couple of weeks without getting hurt, congratulations. Talk about a black spot. Talk about a recurring tragedy. Talk about blunting the impact with euphemisms.

What does it mean when the news story tells us that "a vehicle crossed the centre line"? Sometimes it means they just don't know what happened. Sometimes it means they're not going to apportion any blame until the inquest. Fair enough: innocent until proven guilty; respect for the dead; foolish to rush to judgment and so on. But what it also means is that we miss something crucial. We're not spared the gruesome spectacle, but - and this is what makes the news coverage so regrettable - we're generally spared any exploration of the cause. You'll get the grim pictures at six, but your odds of hearing anything from the coroner's report a few months later are going to be slim.

Last week there was yet another crash, and for once we got a bit of plain speaking from one of the long-suffering people sorting out the wreckage. "There's nothing wrong with the road," he argued. "It's the drivers who are doing this."

Glad to hear him say so. It's a perfectly well-built stretch of highway; and each time I drive along it, I'm ready for the worst. I'm sick of tailgaters in a stream of forty cars pointlessly working their way up the queue and chancing the passing distance to do it. I'm sick of idiots who overtake on blind corners. And I'm sick of idiots who think they're armour-plated and don't know jack about driving.

I'm sure, in the strictest sense, that the guy was right: the road doesn't kill people, people kill people. But I also suspect that big, wide, well-built stretches of road near a motorway may be having a counterproductive effect. The motorway runs out, but the drivers leave the motorway still behaving as though they're on it. Meanwhile, coming from the opposite direction, as the road approaches the motorway and begins to resemble one, the drivers get the idea that they've already reached it.

I'm guessing that if you worked your way through the coroner's reports of the last five years, you'd find a range of circumstances from the unlucky to the breathtakingly foolish. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. A moment's inattention can kill you if everything happens to go wrong. And sometimes idiots get precisely what you'd expect.

Put that together with a road that resembles the motorway it neighbours, but is demarcated solely by strips of paint (in contrast to the one at Meremere where they had the same problem until they removed all the motorway-like features, and reduced traffic to a one-lane go-slow), intersperse a few single-lane sections to impede the flow, and you have the potential for much misery.

A fair bit of this is based on supposition, I must admit. I'd like to know for sure. What do the coroners' reports of the last five years have to say? What exactly happened when vehicles "crossed the centre line"? Who was at fault, and how? Some time soon when I have a bit of spare time (and by that I mean probably April) I'm going to go looking for the reports and find out what happened. If you should happen to have some expert knowledge about this, I'd be interested to hear all about it.

Anyway, happy New Year, and all that. Went away for a holiday, came back. The book I have been writing did not magically complete itself in my absence, so it's back to the keyboard. The working title of the book is The Worried Person's Guide to New Zealand's Future, about which you can read a little here. The blogging might be a bit light for a while, but we'll see what happens.

But right now it's time for an iPod contest update. You have about three weeks left, if you want to get in on the action. To recap: just click here and nominate a memorable date in New Zealand history - and bear in mind: a quirky and obscure entry may well get you extra points. Winner gets an iPod, and the ten most prolific contributors get a Real Groovy CD voucher. I'll post a list of the ten leading contributors in the next blog.

You might be interested to know that the most frequently nominated event so far is not the Springbok tour, nor the Napier earthquake, nor the Erebus disaster, nor even Hillary's ascent of Everest. It's Neil Robert's unfortunate demise at the doors of the Wanganui computer centre. Because life is full of poignant endings, you are - naturally - reading about this courtesy of a vast computer network that probably carries more information about poor Neil and his fellow citizens than the Police computer ever did.